Victim Assistance is in the business of helping, but the agency is now in need of help.
With demand up for its services to crime victims, the agency has outgrown its longtime home on Furnace Street — and plans to move to a larger location in downtown Akron by the end of the year.
This process will start with a capital campaign to raise $450,000 for renovations to the new location.
“We’re ‘moving forward,’” said Leanne Graham, the executive director of Victim Assistance, giving a nod to the capital campaign’s slogan.
The campaign will kick off with a hard-hat event from 5 to 7 p.m. Wednesday that will include a sneak peek at the agency’s future digs on the third floor of the Delaware building, 137 S. Main St., at the corner of Main and Bowery streets.
“They have served the community so well,” said Sylvia Trundle, a retired Akron police captain who is chairing the capital campaign. “There is such a need for their services. People should recognize the value of having a home under one roof to have all the advocates present. I think it’s a positive step.”
Victim Assistance, which provides crisis intervention, advocacy and education to crime victims, has been in its current home at 150 Furnace St. since the agency began in 1972.
When Graham took over for the Rev. Bob Denton, the longtime executive director and founder, in 2013, there were 13 employees. That number has grown to 32 employees, as well as 15 college students who volunteer each semester.
Graham attributed the increase to a heightened demand for services, as well as a rise in grant funding that has enabled the agency to grow its staff and add services, including a texting function started in February that allows victims to reach advocates via text.
Victim Assistance provided services to 6,000 crime victims in 2017 and that number is expected to surpass 7,000 this year.
Besides Furnace Street, the agency has advocates in Akron, Barberton and Stow Municipal courts and six advocates working out of an office on the ninth floor of the Harold K. Stubbs Justice Center, which houses the police department and Akron court.
Graham said this space worked well initially but more recently hasn’t been large enough to accommodate the 15 to 20 victims at a time who need assistance and must wait in the hallway. She said victims and jail inmates have sometimes come face-to-face.
“That space is no longer safe,” Graham said.
Choosing a new home
With the blessing of the agency’s board, Graham began looking for a new location that could house all of the agency’s employees about six months ago.
Graham said her goals were accessibility, visibility, confidentiality and safety. She toured numerous sites before choosing the Delaware building. She liked the spot because of its proximity to the Summit County Courthouse and police department, with a direct connection provided via a skywalk.
The building also has the added benefit of being closer to bus routes than the Furnace Street location, with many of the agency’s clients relying on public transportation.
Victim Assistance will take over the entire third floor of the new building, which required a law firm and engineers who were leasing space to relocate. The agency will have 10,000 square feet, more than double its current space.
The main updates will be the addition and removal of walls and security upgrades, including key-card access, an intercom and cameras.
Other plans include:
• Four meeting rooms for advocates to sit down with clients. Clients will leave through a private exit.
• A larger, 19-seat waiting area and kids' nook.
• A new, 1,000-square-foot training room that will be named in honor of Bob Denton.
• A “trauma-free zone” where employees can take a break and relax. A strict no-work-talk policy will apply.
Graham applied for grant funding for two massage chairs and yoga mats for this space.
“I don’t know if we’ll get it,” Graham said, chuckling.
The agency also applied for grants to help defray other costs. The overall price tag is expected to be $250,000 for construction, $104,597 for security improvements and $95,403 for logistics and supplies.
The agency plans to move into the new space Dec. 31. Advocates will still work in the courts, but these employees will also have desks in the new main office.
Graham has ideas for future plans for both the agency and its new home.
With two more floors in the building, she would love to see the Delaware become a justice center and welcome other social service agencies.
“It could be a one-stop shop for victims,” Graham said.
Victim Assistance is leasing its space for five years, with the chance to renew for another five years after that.
As for what will happen with the agency’s current building, that hasn’t yet been determined. The Safety Forces Chaplaincy Center Board, which provides trauma debriefings and other services to local first responders, owns the building, as well as the Furnace Street Mission in front of it.
Chip Westfall, a retired police captain who heads the chaplaincy board, said the board will discuss plans for the Victim Assistance building at its next meeting.
“Who knows?” he said. “It’s developing down there. There’s all kinds of potential.”
The board also plans to explore the possibility of getting a historic designation for the mission, which dates back to 1926.
The mission and Victim Assistance both have a long history and Westfall said the board is sad to see the two separated.
“But we’re excited because of their ability to reach more people — and have more space,” he said.
Stephanie Warsmith can be reached at 330-996-3705, firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter: @swarsmithabj.